german beer curiosities

German beer is great. Everything you’ve heard is true. But there are some aspects of it that I wasn’t expecting that I think are worth sharing.

The sponsorship issue. When you go to any reasonable bar in the US, you can expect to find 4-10 beers on tap, usually representing a pretty good variety. Some American pilsner megabrew, probably some imported British macrobrew (Guinness, Harp, etc) a local macrobrew (usually Anchor Steam around SF), and if you’re lucky, 1-6 local microbrews. Going to fancier beer bars results in more numerous and esoteric options.

sponsored bar

In Germany, practically every bar is ‘sponsored’ by one of a few major macrobrews: Erdinger, Berliner, Paulaner, etc. This means (as far as I can tell) the bar gets free umbrellas, signs, maybe some furniture, glasses, tap equipment at a reduced rate. Think of the old convenience stores around the US with giant coke-logo with tiny text underneath with the store name. The result of this sponsorship is that for some period of time–years, it seems–the bar is obligated to serve beers only from this brewery. So, at most bars, you can get one (usually quite good) variety of beer, probably a pilsener and maybe also a Hefewiessen, but that’s it. You specify the type of beer, and the brewery is determined by the sponsorship. You want another kind of beer? Switch your bar.

There are a few Irish pubs around that operate in the US-style, and so you can get several types of German beer there. Also, we’ve found two actual breweries, who tend to be independent and serve not only the house brews but several selections from local macrobrews.

The problem with good macrobrews. In the US, there are three huge macrobrews: Budwieser, Miller, and Coors. As far as I can tell, the beer from these three tastes more or less identical and is… not too popular among enthusiasts. This is probably because the beer is brewed mostly from rice syrup, not malt (i.e., grain), meaning it would not even be legal to sell it as beer in Germany (here, beer can contain only water, malt, hops, and yeast). Nonetheless, the vast majority of the beer Americans drink is from one of the big three. The result is that anyone looking for something else has to look at smaller breweries… from smaller but still national breweries like Sam Adams all the way down to boutique breweries like Stone that make comparatively minute quantities.

Here in Deutschland, though, the big brews are good. Like, really good. I still haven’t gotten tired of getting half a liter of Paulaner Hefe-Wiessbier or Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse Dunkel or a lighter Krombacher Pils, all for under 3 euros, less than you’d pay for a skimpy pint in the US. But the good macrobrews serve to block the proliferation of microbrews–why bother seeking out and trying a micro when all the beer around you is so decent? Hence, Germany has only a few microbrews, usually operating out of a single brew-pub. We have found a couple of them though, and the beer is quite good. But not really noticeably better than that you can get at any bar, hence the problem. So variety is lacking a bit, but the average quality is so high and the common beer is unfamiliar enough that I don’t really mind.

Strange concoctions. The last, and probably most unexpected, thing I’d like to mention is what they mix beer with and drink like it’s normal. Before we came, we were warned about the Berliner Wiesse weak beer mixed with fruit syrup. Although it’s indigenous, apparently only tourists drink it, which made sense to me, because why would you spoil good beer like that?

berliner wiesse

What blew me away is what people do drink. Exhibit A: Radler. This is beer mixed with some sweetened citrus, usually lemonade, drunk on hot afternoons or actually whenever if you’re a teenager. This stuff is so popular that you can even get it premixed, bottled in stores. Imagine my surprise when I spotted a classic German brew, Warsteiner, premixed in Lemon and Orange flavors! I’ve tried it… I can’t quite handle sweet+beer, but Leslie says she likes it. Exhibit B: Diesel. This is beer mixed with coke. I drank a whole one of these… it was pretty gross, but seems also to be quite popular (Warsteiner markets this mixture in bottles as well). Leslie has a theory that the younger crowd (drinking age here is 16, and unenforced) use these mixtures as training beers until they are ready for the real thing. Who knows.

Drinking in the streets. The last thing I want to mention is drinking in the streets, which is totally legal here. It takes a while to get used to seeing people just strolling along with a jumbo pilsener in one hand, but then you start to wonder what the big deal is, and why we can’t do this in the US. I have to admit being able to sip a beer while waiting for the laundry to dry at the laundromat made it a much more pleasant experience.

So that’s what’s funny about beer here. We’ve made plans for trips to Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Prague with the first starting next Tuesday, so I’m sure there will be more to share on the travel front soon.

finally, a few pics

Yesterday we did the whirlwind tour of Dresden with our tour guide, Michael. It’s really an awesome city–it’s easy to forget that “old” comes in much deeper shades here than in the US. We hit a few museums, reviewed the horror of the firebombing, looked at old things, etc. We did finally also upload our pictures since arrival, all available here. For example, here’s the view out of our flat’s window:

out the window of our berlin flat

And here’s Michael and I enjoying our modestly sized beers in Dresden yesterday:

beers in dresden

And here is an example of the fare available at the street festival:

stuck pig

first foray: dresden

We got into Dresden yesterday afternoon via the D-Bahn (a fast train system inside Germany and nearby countries). Cousin Michael met us at the platform and we took the tram and walked back to his place. The cool thing about Dresden at the moment is the Bunte Republik Neustadt festival, which as far as I can tell converts the entirety of the Neustadt (“new city”) section of dresden into one continuous party. Still no pics of our own, but here is someone elses to give you a bit of an idea:

dresden party

You can see some more here. So we walked through some of the setup of the party, dumped our stuff at Michael’s flat, then hit the best biergarten we’ve been to so far by a long shot. It’s one of the three original breweries that have been here for hundreds of years, called Waldschloesschen. We ordered big beers (half a liter) but our waitress goaded Michael and I to upgrade to the 1 liter stein, which turned out to be a great way to kick off the night. The food was awesome… a giant roasted chunk of pig (I think a knuckle?), potatoes, and as always, cabbage. Then we walked through the now-blossoming party, put sick Leslie to bed, then had a couple of more beers out on the street as we looked to meet up with some of Michael’s friends. We did about midnight, and I called it a day and crashed back at his place.

Now I’m up, but no one else is, so I figured out how to get the wireless key for the network here and now I have sweet, sweet high-speed bliss. Maybe once Les wakes up I’ll try to get some few first pictures uploaded, assuming we brought the right cable with us.

berlin: we’re here

Today is our third day in Berlin. Things are still pretty insane, so I won’t yet write much. Not even any good pictures to post. The flights were fine; I was lucky and got some sleep on the transatlantic leg (leslie couldn’t get a wink). We arrived, got the key to our cute little flat (and I do mean little… but what would we do with more space, having only three suitcases to live out of?), and started to wander around Mitte (the central district in Berlin) looking for my institute. We eventually, through our first successful foray into German speaking, found it, and I met the very kind staff who installed me in my office and started me through the labyrinth of paperwork that is German bureaucracy. We managed to stay up until almost 8pm on our “new day.”

Yesterday we spent the morning finding a grocery store and allergy medicine (something here gets to both of us), then I went in to the lab, figured out how to buy a train ticket to Dresden for the weekend, then came back and we managed to get a bank account so we could pay for DSL in our flat (that will take two weeks to be installed, so don’t expect to hear to much for us until then), and even got a pair of “handies,” which is what they call cellphones here in a bit of using-english-words-that-english-speakers-don’t action (another example: a tuxedo here is called “ein smoking). We repaired to our home base where leslie cooked up a darn good seared chicken with onions and tomatoes (cooking at home here is basically unheard of, but the kitchen is well-appointed), then got through another 30 minutes of a movie before collapsing.

Today I’m trying to catch up on email and prepare for a talk I’m giving tomorrow afternoon at the institute. I’ll try to get some photos of some kind up soon.